Summertime Blues: Are You Suffering from Summer SAD?

Summer is in full swing, and everyone’s out there basking in the sun, enjoying themselves with their guns and buns out, etc, etc. Right? Well, maybe not everyone. Maybe you’re not so jazzed it’s summer, maybe you’re even feeling a little…sad, or dare we say, depressed? But why? You could actually be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – and before you dismiss that as something people only experience in the winter months, you need to know that this mental health issue can affect different people at different times of the year. So what causes SAD in the summer, what does it look like, and what can you do to make your summers a little brighter?

What Is SAD?

What do we mean in general when we talk about seasonal affective disorder, or SAD? While this is often called the winter blues, or something similar, and many people write it off as just being bummed that the weather isn’t so great, SAD is actually a legitimate mental health concern. It can be characterized by prolonged or recurring bouts of depression, and is closely linked to the changing of seasons (any season!) and changes in natural light. 

person sitting under a tree by a beach
The transition from winter into spring and summer can trigger mental health issues.

And yes, while it is often linked to winter, with its shorter days, lack of light, weather that can affect going out, and often fewer opportunities to socialize, it is actually simply “defined by a regular, temporal relationship between a particular time of the year and a major depressive episode,” according to Rachel Landman, licensed mental health counselor and chief operating officer at Humantold, an online therapy services platform. While for some, it might have a lot to do with a lack of natural light (hence the prevalence of wintertime SAD), for many, it’s more about change. 

So, the transition from winter into spring and summer can trigger mental health issues, too. In fact, while around 5% of the population seems to suffer from SAD, 10% of those experience the “blues” in the spring and summer, with symptoms subsiding when fall comes back around – the opposite of what many people think of when they think of SAD. Let’s take a closer look at why this might be happening to some people.

Why Causes SAD in the Summer?

If you don’t suffer from summer SAD, and you’re a real lover of all things hot and summery, you might be scratching your head wondering why anyone would feel depressed when the seasons once again swing back to this time of year. And even if you do suffer from it, you might also be wondering if you’re crazy, and why you can’t just enjoy the season like everyone else seems to be able to do. 

If you really think about it, though, change, especially in predictable routines that give our lives their shape, can be difficult to deal with. And summer brings with it a particular set of changes, as well as certain physical and mental discomforts that can be problematic for some people. For example, summer can bring with it:

Unpredictableness, and a lack of routine

Say what you will about other seasons, but compared to summer, they tend to lend themselves more to structure, and a less chaotic routine. And changes to routine, or feeling like your days lack structure, can set off a series of feelings that can lead to SAD. According to Landman, “A contributing factor to good mental health is having a predictable routine; the summer often disrupts that, causing symptoms to flare up.” For example, if you’re a mother, you might struggle with the anxiety of having to plan long days with your children at home. In addition, changes to routine like going on vacation can have a big impact on your mental health: while some people might think relaxation when they think of heading out on a trip, others might think anxiety and stress. 

Weather that’s not everyone’s cup of tea

While some people might relish a scorching hot day on the beach, not everyone is thrilled to spend their days commuting or running around after kids in what can feel like oppressive heat. It can start to feel almost like the weather is torturing you personally, and you might even feel physical symptoms, like headaches, which can trigger emotional distress.

And while lack of light affects some people in a negative way, too much daylight can be a problem for others. The long days of summer can actually affect some people’s sleep, which can negatively impact mental health. 

Not only that, but while we usually think of winter weather as the culprit behind ruined plans, summer weather can also cause distressing changes in routine and socializing. It might be too hot to do certain outdoor activities, and if you generally do those activities with friends, you might find yourself more and more isolated in air-conditioned spaces. According to Sherry Benton, PhD, ABPP, psychologist and founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, an online therapy assistance resource, “In optimal times we have a balance of activities that maintain our well-being. This includes exercise, social activities, activities that provide purpose and meaning, spiritual activities, and so forth. When large shifts in weather or environmental factors interfere with these activities we’re at risk for seasonal depression. Anytime your usual sources of well-being and self-care are disrupted you may be at risk.”

Body image issues

blurred out picture of a woman sitting down looking at a scale
Many people dealing with summertime blues deal with body image issues.

Let’s face it: all the talk about getting beach-body-ready is not helping anyone’s mental health, especially after two years of unprecedented weight gain in the U.S. population. And all of the flesh on display in the summer heat can lead some people to make unhealthy comparisons, and worry about the way that their own bodies stack up, as they feel pressured to bare more of their skin. 

Great expectations

Last but not least, we shouldn’t discount the toll that the great expectations of summer can take on someone who just isn’t feeling it. It might seem like everyone is out there, livin’ life, enjoying the outdoors – and if you’re more the, well, “indoorsy” type, that could be problematic for you. You might even end up feeling guilty, or like something is wrong with you, if you’re not “taking advantage” of every moment of summer. According to Landman, “People experiencing SAD struggle to find motivation to leave the house and engage in social interaction, which in return leads to further depressed mood—a never-ending, vicious, self-sustaining cycle.”

So, yes: there are, without a doubt, things that can trigger mental health issues, ranging from the blues to serious depression, in the summer. And if you find yourself nodding along and saying, yeah, that lack of routine, or that enforced feeling of fun, really get to me, you could be facing summer SAD. Let’s take a closer look at the symptoms of summer SAD to help you further recognize it in either yourself or a loved one.

Symptoms of Summer SAD

No matter what time of year SAD comes on, it is generally considered a type of depression, so seasonal depression can look very similar to major depressive disorder – the difference, as we pointed out above, is that it is linked to a certain time of year. If you’re suffering from SAD, you might experience the following symptoms as spring and summer hit:

  • Sadness
  • Apathy
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of motivation and interest in activities
  • Anxiety or worry
  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness or drowsiness) or fatigue
  • Insomnia, with pacing, restlessness, and racing thoughts
  • Lack of appetite
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Having trouble making decisions or staying focused

Remember, if you’re struggling with these symptoms, consider speaking to a trusted professional, and if your depression escalates to thoughts of suice, immediately contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or call 911 if you are in crisis. 

Coping with Summer SAD

Again, summer SAD is totally a thing! And it can be really rough, especially since it has the added “bonus” of being not so common, and a little confusing to people who don’t get it. But you feel the way you feel, and if you feel the warm weather blues creeping in, there are a few strategies to try. For example: 

  • Identify your positive and negative triggersIt’s important to know what triggers you in a negative way during the summer, but you should also try to keep in mind the things that trigger your more positive state of mind in other seasons – the things that you feel are missing. That way you can really focus on what you can do to fill those needs in the warmer months.
  • Give yourself a break from the expectations – Yes, it’s summer, but it’s also ok to say “no” to things that aren’t for you. Just remember to find a balance between doing everything and completely withdrawing. illustration of someone sleeping
  • Make sleep a priority – Again, the long, light-filled days can actually affect your sleep, which in turn affects your mental health, so you’ll have to make more of an effort to get the solid shut-eye you need to boost your mood. Try relaxation or sleep aid apps, have a predictable bedtime and wake-up time, and try to keep your room cool and dark. 
  • Create a routine – Speaking of routines, if the chaos of summer has got you down, try making a routine for yourself and sticking to it. Schedule everything from bedtime, mealtimes, and wake-up times to time for socializing, exercising, meditating, and other types of self-care. 
  • Feel your feelings – It’s easy to shut down in both body and mind when you experience summer SAD, so try to find time to experience your emotions (even if it’s 10 minutes a day), which can help stop your body from shutting down so much.
  • Avoid “depression traps” – Using unhealthy behaviors to cope with your feelings could lead you to do things that aren’t in your best interest, like spending too much money, drinking or eating much, or spending too much time isolated playing video games or scrolling on the internet.
  • Stay cool – It’s ok to head indoors when the heat and humidity soar; heading somewhere cool can help to stave off the agitation, stress, and depression that excessive heat can bring. And don’t forget to stay hydrated! Having a headache will only add to your negative emotions.
  • Get a little help from your friends – If parenting in the summer is triggering your SAD, try banding together with other parents to share the extra responsibilities that come when school lets out. For example, exchange childcare days, or start a carpool for summer camps and activities. 
  • Get a little help from a pro – Experts recommend that you seek professional help if your SAD symptoms affect your life for 2 weeks or more, but they also agree that you should get help anytime you feel like you could benefit from it. 

It’s true that summer means carefree fun for a lot of people – but definitely not for everyone! If you suffer from summer SAD, you’re not alone, and you have no reason to feel guilty or like a misfit. You simply need to recognize what you’re experiencing, and find ways to bring brightness to the brightest of seasons, even if that means speaking to a mental health professional. We wish all of you out there a happy and safe summer, and would love to hear how these hot, sunny months affect you!

Feeling SAD? It Could Be Seasonal Affective Disorder

With winter coming, you might be feeling some mixed emotions. Maybe you’re sad to say goodbye to the sun and fun of summer, and the beautiful weather of fall, but maybe you’re also sustained by thoughts of holiday togetherness, or some cozy hibernation time. On the other hand, you might see nothing good in the long winter months, and might be counting the days til spring; you might even begin feeling blue as the days grow shorter. You should know, though, that “winter blues” are one thing, but they could become problematic for your mental health if you’re like a small but significant portion of the population who suffer from a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. So how do you know if you’re suffering from this condition, and how can you get some relief as you wait for the sunny days of summer to return?

What Is SAD?

If you’re starting to despair now that winter is just about here, you could be among the possibly 11 million people (or 3% of the population, depending on whose numbers you look at) that suffer from seasonal affective disorder. And if you have milder symptoms, then you could be among the 25 million who suffer from the winter blues. While the winter blues aren’t as serious as SAD, full-blown SAD is a type of mood disorder, and is considered a serious form of depression – the main difference between other forms of depression and SAD is that SAD happens at the same time every year. 

black and white picture of a woman looking out at water while bundled up and snow on the ground

While there is a rarer form of summertime SAD, it most often rears its ugly head in the winter. Why? Scientists aren’t exactly sure what causes it, but some experts believe it’s related to lack of light in the winter (which is why it’s more common the further north you go, and less common in sunnier places like Florida). Less sunlight in the fall and winter months could mean your brain is making less serotonin, a chemical linked to brain pathways that regulate mood. Others think that decreased sunlight exposure affects the natural biological clock that regulates hormones, sleep, and moods. It is also three times more likely to affect women than men, and might have a genetic component, as well.

Are You Feeling Sad, or Are You Suffering from SAD?

Whatever the cause, seasonal affective disorder can really disrupt your life for a big chunk of the year. What’s worse, it can often be overlooked or misdiagnosed, especially since the symptoms can mimic those of other conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome, mononucleosis, thyroid disorders, or low blood sugar. To help determine whether you might be suffering from SAD, consider the past few years – have you:

  • Had depression that has started at around the same time?
  • Not felt your symptoms during other seasons?
  • Had more of this particular season with depression than without over your lifetime?
blue plate with letters spelling out weight gain in the middle
Weight gain is a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

So what specific symptoms should you be looking out for? They are generally similar to other kinds of depression, and include:

  • Feelings of despair or hopelessness
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Weight gain
  • Appetite changes, especially increased cravings for carbohydrates
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Reduced interest in sex
  • Lack of interest in social activities
  • Suicidal thoughts in extreme cases

If you are experiencing the symptoms above, speak to your doctor: they might diagnose you with SAD if you experience at least five of nine clinical symptoms for at least two weeks. Even if you don’t meet that criteria, you could still have a milder form of SAD, sometimes called the “winter blues,” or the more technical term, subsyndromal SAD. 

Can You Find Relief?

So what can you do if you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder? Are there ways to make the winter months more bearable? While there’s no “cure” for any kind of depression, there are things you can try to get some relief. For example:caucasian woman sleeping in bed

  • Lifestyle changes – There’s no magical way to stave off SAD by eating certain foods or following a certain regimen; however, you might be able to lift your mood a little by eating right, including plenty of fruits and veggies, as well as lean protein, getting enough exercise, finding social support, and, very importantly, practicing good sleep hygiene. Get to bed at the same (reasonable) time each night, and avoid blue light before bed. And, even if you want to sleep in all day, set an alarm for an early hour so you can experience some early-morning sunshine, which is the best light to help your body combat SAD. 
  • Light therapy – SAD might be partially caused by getting too little natural morning light and too much artificial light in the evening. To combat this, some experts recommend that you try using a light box that can help mimic morning sunlight, which gives you a spike in cortisol and a boost of energy. There is some evidence that sitting in front of a 10,000-lux (the measure of light intensity) light box for 30-45 minutes every day around sunrise during fall and winter decreases S.A.D. symptoms. But you have to be diligent about using it everyday around sunrise, and you have to be aware that not all light boxes are created equal. It’s best to do light therapy under supervision of a doctor, so speak to yours about finding a research-grade one that might be right for you.
  • Time outside – Light boxes can certainly be helpful, but there’s no substitute for natural light – even a rainy morning provides around 10,000 lux, and snow on the ground is even brighter, at 50,000 lux. But the best light for SAD seems to be the light outside within 30 minutes of sunrise – so set your alarm, and get out for an early morning stroll!
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Something that might be even more helpful than light therapy is speaking with a psychotherapist and engaging in some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In some studies, CBT was found to prevent recurrences of SAD, probably because it provides long-term coping skills, not just physical relief.

The bottom line is: you don’t have to suffer all winter with the debilitating symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. The first step to getting some relief is recognizing your condition, and naming what is going on. Once you do that, you can speak to a professional and start making some changes that could make a real difference to your life, and make the long winter much more bearable.